István Deák: The World War II Deciders

Roundup: Talking About History

[István Deák is Seth Low Professor Emeritus at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of Essays on Hitler's Europe (University of Nebraska Press).]

... In a stimulating "Afterthoughts" chapter, Kershaw reflects on whether these ten decisions could have been avoided, or others been made instead. His answer is that there were barely any alternatives. It is a little surprising, perhaps, in a book that studies the free historical agency of political and military leaders, and casts the individual in such a central role in history, to find this sense of historical inevitability; but it pervades Kershaw's book. In his telling, the British in May 1940 had really no choice but to hold out if they wanted to avoid total humiliation and the end of their empire, not to speak of the end of Western civilization. Unable to mount an invasion of Great Britain, Hitler had hardly any choice but to seek Britain's isolation through an attack on the Soviet Union. Stalin, once he had committed the folly of coming to an agreement with the Nazis, had no choice but to defend himself when attacked by his erstwhile allies. The Japanese were unwilling to surrender their imperial policy achieved through several decades of painful re-armament and modernization; and, finally, the United States could not allow Japan to dominate China as well as to interrupt the balance in the Western Hemisphere. And so events took their inexorable course. This led to victory for the Western democracies, but it led to victory, too, for Stalin's tyrannical empire.

But is Kershaw right in devoting a large book to individual political decision- makers? Today, when professors advise their doctoral candidates to write on great historical trends--on social, psychological, and cross-cultural currents, or on economic underpinnings, social classes, and institutional developments--it is not surprising to find that research projects and pathbreaking studies on diplomatic and political history have become a rarity. Yet Kershaw's book is precisely that: a diplomatic and political history.

Clearly, industrial and economic developments were crucial for wartime decision-making. The United States, Japan, the Soviet Union, and Germany were first-rate industrial powers; Great Britain less so; Italy not at all. And yet in none of these states did the captains of industry dictate strategy to the politicians. Instead they worked for the government--with a handsome profit to themselves, but still under strict state control. Political leaders such as Roosevelt, who understood his country's economic situation, wisely abstained from entering the war before the industry was ready. Stalin attempted to do the same in 1941, but was overruled by the German attack. Hitler was rightly convinced that Germany had only a few years before its enemies would outstrip the country's and even Europe's production figures, and so he was always in a hurry with regard to strategic planning. Yet in 1940, for domestic political reasons, he allowed the war industry to fall grievously behind. In sum, then, it was not economic forces that dictated German policy; it was Hitler who dictated economic developments.

Historians and political thinkers used to attribute enormous significance to the behavior and collective strategies of specific social classes, especially the working class, which was said to hold the power to stop a war or even to turn it against its makers. This dearly held idea proved to be wrong during World War I and again during World War II. No doubt, the discontent of French workers, or rather of trade-union leaders, was partly responsible before the war for sagging production figures in tanks and fighter planes, but that is not why France was defeated in 1940. The French army in that year still had better tanks and more artillery than did the Germans. Similarly, the relative satisfaction of German workers, now free of the threat of unemployment, contributed to the rapid development of the pre-war armament industry in that country.

But the war itself proved that European workers were neither more nor less "progressive" than members of other social groups. Their role in the anti-Nazi resistance was less significant than that of intellectuals or of army officers. True, hundreds of French railroad men and hundreds of Belgian miners, most of them communist trade-union members, fought and died in the resistance movement, but other railroad men unhesitatingly served the Germans or the collaborationist governments. (And without the assistance of railroad engineers and stokers, whether in France, Poland, the Netherlands, or Hungary, the Final Solution could not have been implemented.) Mainly, it was a question of money and nationality: Czech workers toiled diligently in the German-run factories throughout the war, because of their good pay and good food rations; Polish workers often engaged in sabotage, because of their low pay and starvation food rations. German workers in uniform served their country well; but Italian workers in uniform were likely to surrender to the enemy in a war that few Italians considered their own.

And what about the role of religion?

It is astonishing how limited a role religion and the churches played in World War II, as opposed to the wars of the early modern age or today's conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. Polish Catholic laymen and priests resisted the Nazis and the Soviets and were victimized by the two in turn, but then Catholicism and Polishness were virtually interchangeable. The German Catholic clergy and the faithful generally supported the war effort, especially when it came to fighting Bolshevism, even though they objected to many aspects of Nazi practices and doctrine. Catholic and Protestant clergymen in the rest of Europe might or might not have been in favor of Nazi Germany, depending on their nationality and the local circumstances. During the war, the Soviet leadership employed Eastern Orthodox clergymen to promote Russian and Slavic patriotism. In Yugoslavia, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs were killing each other in the name of both nationality and religion. Overall, however, one can argue that had no religions and no churches existed in Europe between 1939 and 1945, the war would have been fought practically the same way. The role of religion in the Japanese theater of war was even more doubtful.

The same cannot be said, of course, about the causal influence of nationalism. It was the principal motivation for the German conquest in the East and for collaboration as well as resistance in occupied Europe. Ukrainians, Slovaks, Croats, Albanians, Bosnians, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians expected national salvation from the German occupiers; Czechs, Serbs, Poles, and Russians feared the German presence because the national ambitions of the ethnic minorities and the neighboring nations. Modern studies show that even in such countries as Norway and France, where statehood was not in doubt, the main motivation of the resistance movement was not political ideology but patriotism. In Europe, and to a lesser degree in East Asia, the perceived need for the nation to rid itself of ethnic minorities was why people joined or opposed the German and Japanese war effort. World War II was not only a clash among great powers and a clash of conflicting ideologies, it was also a series of civil wars and ethnic conflicts. The most important and lasting outcome of the war was ethnic cleansing, which forever changed the demography and the ethnic composition of many countries. The five million East European Jews who were killed during the war, and the thirteen million East European Germans who were expelled after the war, did not return to their homeland; nor will their descendants.

In view of all this, we must return to the underlying premise so eloquently propounded by Kershaw: that the major events of World War II were the work of individuals. In August 1939, Hitler and Stalin agreed to smash Poland and to re-divide Eastern Europe, yet no more than a handful of assistants had advance knowledge of all this. Without Churchill's eloquence and dynamism, the war against Nazism would have come to an end nearly as soon as it started. Hitler and Hitler alone decided to invade the Soviet Union. Roosevelt and his trusted associates prepared the United States for war. And it was only when the emperor of Japan nodded his head that a mighty Japanese fleet, loaded with attack aircraft, sailed for Hawaii.

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